Shine the Light

by April McGowan

Shannon is out to save the world one caring act at a time. She’s stood by her best friend, Amber, through their whole lives especially when Amber lost her sight. She has an active outreach ministry to the homeless and disenfranchised. And she’s even let down her guard long enough to let a boyfriend, Justin, into her life.

Her life has settled into a pleasing routine of teaching, freelance photography work, quiet dinners with Justin, and taking Amber on treks to find new subjects for her visionary paintings.

But when a man from her past shows up, her secure world crumbles into triggered PTSD episodes that threaten everything she relies on. Will she be able to overcome these old memories, or will her past crush any hopes she had for a future?

Chapter 1

A man reeking of body odor and urine shuffled by Shannon, an emptiness akin to a black hole shadowing his eyes. The soiled navy colored blanket slung over his shoulders enshrouded him like burial cloths that he clung to with nicotine-stained fingers.

Shannon focused her camera on those fingers and then on the man’s eyes, capturing his despair. As she took his photograph, Shannon’s heart wrenched in sympathy. She glanced up the sidewalk dotted with the lost and homeless. Treat each as an individual and love them the best you can. To do anything else would overwhelm Shannon. She tucked her Cannon Mark II away in her backpack and turned to those others who sat waiting. Only waiting. For a handout, for the weather to change, for time to pass.

She’d given that man a Ziploc packet with socks, protein bar, bottle of water, and a donated paperback of Golden Apples in the Sun. She might never see him again, or she’d see him next week. Homelessness overwhelmed her some days, but doing nothing was more abhorrent to her than doing something. She had to do something. She was thankful for all the books she’d collected from library cast off sales—and donations from friends who had more books than they knew what to do with.

Shannon handed off another packet to the life-worn homeless woman in front of her. The woman took it with grateful hands. They exchanged a smile before Shannon moved on down the block. Sometimes she felt like a bandage over a crack in the wall of a dam.

The air, heavy with an autumn musk, mixed with the late day heat radiating from the concrete office buildings that towered above them. Overhead, a sliver of blue sky and silky clouds funneled the day’s last light down to them.

Queen Susie, one of the oldest women Shannon had met on the streets, moved toward her, holey boots scuffing the sidewalk as she pushed her rolling seat-walker ahead of her. Shannon greeted her and handed her a packet. Susie must have accumulated quite a library by this point if she’d had anywhere to store the books.

Queen Susie tucked the packet into the makeshift saddlebags that adorned her walker. She jangled the tattered Styrofoam change cup as a call for alms, but as a delivery truck raced by, honking angrily at a pedestrian, she lost her grip. Shannon caught the cup before it crashed to the sidewalk, spilling the old woman’s gatherings for the day.

“Careful there, Queen Susie.”

Queen Susie flashed Shannon a grateful grin and blinked at her from her one good eye. The other socket sagged open, the eye having been lost to infection many years ago. It was hard to look at, but she’d stopped trying to cover it when she found her deformity garnered larger donations.

“It’s my rheumatism.” Queen Susie took the cup in her stained, gnarled fingers and slid it into a holder she’d fashioned from duct tape on her chair.

“I know, sweetie. How are you and Magic Stan doing? You have a safe place to sleep tonight?”

Queen Susie locked on her with her good eye. “It’s a secret.” She nodded as if to draw Shannon into her conspiracy. “My Stan keeps us safe and sound.”

“Speaking of, where is Magic Stan this evening?” Shannon was surprised he was out of earshot of Queen Susie. They usually traveled together.

“He’s on his way.” Queen Susie spoke of Stan like he was her personal attendant. And it often seemed that way to Shannon.

“You have a safe night, now. Okay?” She’d love to take Stan and Susie home, but she knew better than to put herself at risk. She had to opt for the next best thing—keeping an eye on them out here.

Despite its being a hot fall, the nights were turning chilly in downtown Portland. The sunlight faded along with the busy traffic, blending into the buildings as streetlights flickered to life. Nearby restaurants opened their patios for dinner and somewhere in the distance someone started to play a piano. Dinner aromas of grilled onions wisped on the breeze. Shannon took out her Cannon and took a shot of the light, wanting to describe it to her best friend later. If only Amber could see the way it shone. But Amber’s recent blindness kept her from experiencing that ever again.

The next best thing was to describe it to her and for Shannon to watch as Amber’s interpretation formed on the canvasses she painted on. Often what Amber expressed caught the emotion of the moment even better than the camera. After losing her sight last year, she’d learned a new way to share her internal vision with the world around her—and the world connected with it. Orders for Amber’s paintings had picked up significantly in the past few months, and she was running out of subject matter.

Shannon was too, truth be told. Many of her photographs weren’t anything like Amber’s work, but they helped pay the bills. Not everyone wanted photos of the homeless to adorn their living spaces. There was something there, though, that drew her to their plight. Often a wisdom of a shared humanity and how precious life was.

And maybe, if she was able to communicate that to another, they would see the homeless as hurting people, rather than just obstacles on the sidewalks.

In any case, she needed to plan a road trip for them—just the girls. They’d had little time together since Amber and Ethan had started seeing each other. Hope rose inside at the idea. It’d been a hard year. No matter how well things were going for Amber now, the last year had blurred into one of survival as Amber adjusted to her new sight loss and Shannon took on the role of comforter and encourager.

Shannon was ready to live again.

A tapping noise caught her attention, and she glanced up to see Magic Stan limping his way toward them down the street, his antique cane clicking on the sidewalk, top hat slanted just so over his mass of oily graying hair. At the same time, Shannon caught sight of Justin, her boyfriend, heading her way, a look of worry on his face. He didn’t entirely trust Stan.

Shannon couldn’t blame him. She knew very well the irrational unpredictability of those with mental illness—and Magic Stan suffered from multiple delusions. He was playwright and actor and magician. And the top orator of Burnside Boulevard.

“New books, Miss Shannon?” Magic Stan used an aloof tone that served to feed Queen Susie’s idea of being lost royalty. They were quite a pair. With Magic around, Shannon knew she didn’t have to worry over much about Queen Susie being mugged for her few earthy belongings. He’d dash the brains out of anyone who even looked askance at his queen and adopted street mother.

Justin came up and handed Magic Stan a Ziploc packet—this one held a copy of Great Expectations which Stan whipped out and caressed with deep affection.

“Kind, sir.” Stan flipped open the pages and inhaled deeply. “Nothing like that aroma in the world.” Stan gave Justin a cursory glance, eyes homing in on his neck. “Another tattoo, my boy? You’ll never get a wife with all that ink. It isn’t distinguished.” Stan’s gray, bushy eyebrows drew together in disapproval. Justin laughed it off, but Shannon came to his defense.

She cleared her throat and pointed out her own purple-tipped hair, piercings, and tattoos, particularly the tiny cross near her left eye—the one that covered the scar given to her by a fellow foster kid.

“But you’re not married, either.” Magic Stan crossed his arms. “You look like one of those girls from the Korean punk band I saw down by the waterfront.”

“Well, Stan, I’m not Korean, I’m part Thai. And as for marriage—there are worse things than being single.” She sensed Justin stiffen next to her, but moved ahead. “Thanks, though, that you think I look like I could be in a band.” She laughed at Stan’s further scowl and gave him an extra protein bar. Then she and Justin moved down the street, offering several more packets and books.

She’d love more than anything to house every one of them on this street and make sure each one had a hot meal and warm bath. But there were too many. They multiplied every year. The camps by the mission and under the bridges swelled to capacity. In the city of Portland alone, camping along roadsides and in parks. Makeshift RV parks were cropping up along streets in otherwise residential neighborhoods, leaving garbage and waste. There simply wasn’t enough room for them all. And winter was around the corner. Some would go south for warmer pastures, trading out the damp, incessant Oregon rain. Many, like Stan and Susie, were too infirm to move.

As they finished up for the day, she and Justin hoofed up the hill to his car. He’d been very quiet the past hour. Quiet even for Justin.

“We did good.” Feeling the chill and dampness of an oncoming rain, Shannon untied her light jacket from around her waist and tugged it on. “Are you up for this again next week?”

He shrugged. His eyes carried the shadow of their earlier argument. “I’ve got a lot going on. I’ll let you know.” Justin smiled slightly, but it didn’t look genuine. She could see the hurt in his eyes and her stomach clenched. If only he’d be willing to keep their relationship right where it was, she would have never had to break his heart.

“Everything okay?” She kept her voice light and encouraging—pretending all was well.

“Just got a lot on my mind.” He leaned in and gave her a quick kiss. He looked deep into her eyes, and she saw a longing there she couldn’t answer. Then he turned to get in his car.

They’d often finish up one of their days by grabbing dinner together, but he made no such offer this time. Something inside told her to stop him, to talk it over before he left—to try and make him understand. But she said nothing. Shannon wasn’t going to change her mind. She wished he understood. He used to—or so she’d thought. Turns out he was just counting on wearing her down until she’d agree that marriage wasn’t the bad idea she knew it to be. At least for her.

Justin rolled down his Fiat’s windows and turned on the stereo. Rap music pounded through the car.

“I’ll call you tomorrow.” She waved.

Pursing his lips in thought, he nodded but didn’t wave back. Her stomach sank three notches. As he pulled into traffic and headed away, she waited for the customary light tap of his car’s horn.

It didn’t come.

Shannon stood on the corner and watched him crest the next hill and disappear. She gulped for breath, drowning under the weight of her decision.

Her phone text sounded, and she pulled it out, hoping. It wasn’t him. Instead she read Amber’s text, inviting her for dinner.

Just us girls? Shannon tapped back. She could use some one-on-one with Amber.

Girls and boys. Ethan’s here, Amber texted back.

A hard knot of emotion worked its way up into her throat.

Not tonight. Shannon couldn’t bear to watch Ethan dote on Amber. Or worse that lovesick look in Amber’s unseeing eyes.

You okay? Amber’s Spidey sense was on full force, it seemed.

Yep. Gotta run. Say hi to Ethan. She put her phone on silent and tucked it into her pocket. She’d never lied to Amber before. Not bold-faced in type like that. But what could she say?

Things between Justin and her had been shaky at best the past few months. He wanted more. Shannon knew giving more really meant giving all—and she’d seen the damage of giving all too many times.

Shannon walked up 9th Street, past a stream of homeless heading south to the missions for the night. She tromped up the hill toward the food trucks, many of which were shuttering for the night, hoping Pho-Mazing wasn’t closed yet. Getting there in time, she ordered soup and spring-wrapped tofu rolls and started the hike back to her studio apartment in China Town.

Walking never bothered her. She loved the feel of the city around her, its life of joys and sorrows ran through her blood. She never wanted to live anywhere else. She didn’t want anything in her life to change.

She thought of Justin. Her wants mattered little, it seemed.

A bus whooshed by her, and she picked up her pace, passing the church where Amber attended her support group.

“Beautiful girl.” The gravelly voice coming from a slumped man on the corner startled her. “I have a beautiful Asian girl.”

The hairs on the back of Shannon’s neck rose to attention. She reached in her pocket for her pepper spray, finger on the trigger. The man didn’t approach her, though.

“I had two. One’s dead. Long dead. So beautiful.” The man sobbed into his dirty hands. His knit cap and oversized pea jacket hid most of him from her, but even so, Shannon knew most of the regulars from their clothes. She didn’t recognize him.

“If you head east on Burnside, you’ll find the missions—Gospel Union and Portland Rescue. They can give you a meal. A bed is more of a challenge, but your belly will be full.” She kept her distance. Being alone on the streets talking to a strange homeless man wasn’t something even she, streetwise and comfortable working with the homeless, felt good about.

“My little one. So pretty. Lost her. Lost her.”

Shannon couldn’t tell if he was mentally ill, drunk, or both. She remembered the one last packet in her backpack and swung it off to reach for it. Still, she kept her pepper spray in her other hand, on the ready.

“Stolen.” He sighed and tilted back his head, looking up into Shannon’s eyes.

Her very marrow went cold.

“They took her. Took her from me. Mine. But they took her.”

It couldn’t be.

Everything in her balked. Daniel. She hadn’t laid eyes on him in years. They’d told her he was most likely dead. Even when she’d heard a rumor he might be around, she hadn’t believed it. Not really. But here he was, alive and well. Well, at least alive.

“They didn’t take her. You threw her away,” she hissed at him, but he took no notice.

Shannon wanted to scream at him, thrash him. It was all she could do not to go into hysterics. She whipped around to leave and saw the line of homeless leaning against buildings or sitting on curbs, opening their packets, heads inclined over books, hope or comfort or relief reflecting on their faces. The crinkling deadweight of the last packet hung heavy in her hand.

If there was anyone else there besides Daniel, Shannon would have offered it to them. Anyone.

Instead, she cinched up her backpack, shoved her pepper spray back in her pocket, and took a step away. Her hot soup, dangling in the bag of her other hand, sloshed as if to remind her of what it was like when she had nothing to eat at all.

And who’s fault was that? She started to take another step, but before she could move, her legs betrayed her and turned her back around. Shannon saw how Daniel’s eyes transfixed on the packet. His shaky, grime-encrusted fingers reached out toward her.

Always taking.

Shannon tossed the packet at his feet, staying out of reach, and stormed away, anger fueling her as she went up three blocks and came back two, going through an ally here and side street there. She didn’t want him following her. She didn’t want him knowing where she lived. She didn’t want him.

Her father had no business being alive.

Chapter 2

Morning dawned after a sleepless night, afternoon approached, and Shannon still didn’t know what to do with herself. An edginess she hadn’t experienced in a long time rattled her. Daniel alive? In her city? Maybe he’d move on to Seattle or down to California. As long as he went away. Soon.

She’d texted Amber to come over, not knowing what else to do. But even inviting Amber to visit, which usually made her feel secure, didn’t calm her nerves.

Shannon itched from the inside out, hyper-alert and displeased with everything. She picked up the dirty dishes from her table and counter and washed them and set them in the drainer. She moved from one side of her 500-square foot apartment to the other, stashing personal things away, moving prints and shuffling papers. After wiping the dust from the cherry wood coffee table, she tossed pillows on the ornate green and gold brocade sofa. Cleaning was therapeutic for her nervous energy.

She told herself she was cleaning for Amber’s visit, but Amber couldn’t see any of it anyway. Shannon opted to spend a few minutes making sure the floor was clear of obstacles so Amber wouldn’t fall and break her neck. Putting everything in its place made her feel more in control of her life. Even if it wasn’t true, it at least appeared that way.

A knock came on her door. “Shannon, it’s Amber.”

Shannon raced to the door, yanking it open.

“What’s the SOS? Is Justin okay? Did you break up or something?”

“Not everything is about our love lives.” Shannon’s dark tone startled her.

“Sorry.” Amber used her cane to maneuver to the small dining table that separated the kitchen area from the living room. She pulled out a chair and waved for Shannon to join her.

“I don’t want to sit.” Shannon tucked her hands into her pockets, feeling reassured and then trapped. She pulled them out and crossed her arms. Nothing felt right. Nothing was right. Her teeth ground out the tension as she fought for control.

“Whatever you say.” Amber gave her a patient smile and tipped her head down, starting to fiddle with her phone, pretending to look at it.

Shannon scowled. “You know I think it’s creepy when you do that.”

“It makes people nervous when I stare out at nothing.”

The apps responded with soft clicks and tones as Amber scrolled. She really was handy with all the disabled access apps.

Shannon sat down, shame burning on her cheeks. “Sorry. I just don’t know what to do.”

“Start at the beginning.”

“Daniel’s here. In Portland. On the streets. It’s not just a nasty rumor.”

Amber’s fingers fumbled and she dropped her phone against the table. “Oh boy.”

“Yeah.” Shannon raked her fingers through her hair in frustration, scrubbing her fingertips against her scalp.

“Well, he’s alive. That’s good, right?”

Everything in her recoiled at the idea. Imagining him having died and leaving her an orphan was much preferable to being abandoned. Even as an adult.

“Right.”

“You don’t sound convinced.”

Shannon couldn’t meet her friend’s unseeing gaze. The scrutiny proved too much.

“I’ve moved on with my life. He’s got no right showing up and…” Shannon’s voice trailed off.

“And being alive?”

“It sounds awful to say it aloud.” But true. Very true. “I hope he’ll pack up and move on, but with my luck…” She stood and started pacing again.

“Wait. He’s homeless?”

“Of course he is. What else would he ever be? Why break a twenty-five year roll now? He’s hanging out by that church you go to for your support group.”

Amber’s eyebrows creased and a funny look passed over her face. “Daniel? Of course.” Amber put her hand over her mouth. “Shannon. Oh, I had no idea.”

“You knew he was there?” Shannon stood, arms akimbo, incredulous.

“I knew there was a homeless man named Daniel camping out on that corner, but I didn’t connect that with the rumor you’d heard. I didn’t think of your Daniel as a homeless person. Besides, I don’t remember what he looks like. I would have been too young to remember. He’s been there for weeks now. I guess that corner’s his place when he moves through Portland.”

“Wait. You mean he comes through here regularly?” The tension in her neck manifested ten-fold, and she tried to rub the burning knot on her vertebra into submission.

“Maggie gives him leftover donuts and coffee every week after our support meetings. She said he’s seasonal, like so many of the others. Although, with the tent cities and our warmer winters lately, he could stick around.” She blew out a breath. “What a mess.”

“Completely.”

“Well, why not call one of the shelters? You’ve got a lot of pull down there. Then he can get some regular meals and clean up.”

Shannon’s mind whirled at the suggestion. “Clean up? He’s not going to clean up. He’d have to want to change, and my father never wanted to change anything about his life. He’s exactly where he wants to be.”

“No one wants to be homeless. I mean, not really.”

“I’m not sure what propaganda you’re reading, but there are thousands who do. Including Daniel. He chose it.” Her compassion leaked like a sieve from her spirit, replaced with an impervious granite.

“From what you’ve told me, he’s mentally unstable. He’s probably not making good decisions because of that.” Amber’s tone told Shannon she should be ashamed of her feelings.

Hardly.

“And whose fault is that? He could have taken his meds. He could have—” Her voice choked off and she moved to the window, staring out at the Columbia River eight blocks away. The blue-gray expanse dotted with hopeful boaters flowed out toward the ocean, free.

Amber moved over, putting a comforting hand on her back. “He could have chosen to take his meds, and he didn’t. And he lost you. I can’t imagine how you feel. But if he were my dad, I’d want him off the streets, no matter how angry I was.”

Shannon stiffened. “You have no idea how you’d feel. You think your dad was a saint.”

Amber backed up. “My dad was a good man.”

A snort escaped her before she could cover it. Anger built and swirled into a category five hurricane. Amber’s dad had always been off limits—an unspoken barrier.

“What?” Amber’s voice revealed the hurt Shannon had inflicted. Shannon should stop. She knew it. But she couldn’t. It’d festered for too long now.

“I know Jennifer wanted to adopt me right along with you, Amber. But your dad said no.” The pain of it swept along her like an electrical storm. Her life could have been so different. So different. Amber could have been her real sister, not just in affection. Shannon wouldn’t have lived out her time in foster and group homes. No one wanted a troubled, angry girl with mental illness and drug abuse in her past. No one wanted her.

“You were still in foster care. Daniel hadn’t given you up yet.”

“Even if Daniel had been willing to let me go, your dad wouldn’t have gone for it.”

Amber moved away and sank down on the couch. “I know. After you were stuck in group homes, I don’t think I ever begged him for anything like I did for you to be my sister.” She sighed. “He had his reasons.”

“And I knew what they were.”

Amber’s face paled. “He loved you in his own way.”

“But not as his own. Too colorful for him.” She looked down at her tawny arms. “At least that didn’t stop your mom from keeping us in touch with each other.” Her only balm was Amber’s continued friendship. Jennifer had taken her shopping along with Amber for school clothes and supplies. Even after she’d entered permanent foster care, Shannon never lacked those physical comforts as some of the other kids did. The foster system tried—but you couldn’t regulate love. She’d have happily lived with her father in tattered clothing if he’d only loved her more than he’d loved himself.

“I don’t know what to say.” Tears streamed unchecked down Amber’s cheeks. With every drop, the guilt of her outburst lanced Shannon’s heart.

Shannon came and put her arm around her friend. “It’s not on you.” She’d been jealous of Amber. For years. But she’d done her best not to let those feelings ruin their sister-ship. Because deep down, that’s what they were. What they’d always be. No matter who their parents were.

God gave Amber to Shannon. And vice versa. And God had taken away her jealousy. Or so she thought.

“I’ll work this out.” Shannon said the words to comfort Amber more than believing them herself. She didn’t have a clue how to feel or what to do. Or how any of it would work out.

“Do you want me to find him a place?” Amber wiped at her eyes. “I mean, I could make the calls, so you wouldn’t have to.”

“Not your responsibility.”

“You’re always protecting me, Shannon. Why don’t you let me protect you this time?”

Shannon started to let down her guard until Amber added, “I’m sure Justin would help, too. What does he think about it?”

“No.”

“Why not? He loves you, too. He’d want to help.”

Loved her was more like it. “I’m not calling him.”

Amber pulled away. “Did something happen?”

Where to start? Not today. “No, I’m just not getting him involved.”

A second lie?

“I can see why you’d want to protect him. But if you’re in a serious relationship with someone, it’s best not to hide things. Especially big things.”

“Justin can’t understand. He’s not like us.” Justin always had a family that wanted him. Shannon headed to the kitchen, opened the fridge, and took out sandwich supplies. “Want anything to eat?”

“No. I ate earlier with Ethan. Speaking of…” Amber stopped.

Shannon turned to her, focusing on the warm flush on her friend’s cheeks. “What’s up?”

“He wanted to know if you and Justin were up for dinner next week.”

Shannon could tell this wasn’t what Amber was planning to say. Even before she lost her sight, she’d had an awful poker face. Now, though, reading her was easier than ever.

“I don’t know. I’ll have to check my schedule.” Before Ethan and Amber got so cozy, she’d drop whatever she had going on in a second to have dinner with her Shannon. But lately, it’d felt forced.

She changed the subject. “Speaking of plans, when are we getting out of town? Classes are starting again, and I’ll soon be facing those little faces, broken clay pots, and childish outbursts. We never got our road trip this summer.”

Not for lack of trying.

“Oh, uh. Soon? When is break over?”

“In two weeks. I thought we’d pack the car and just hit the open road and see where the fall colors take us.”

Amber shifted. “What about Mocha?”

“I’m sure Ethan could take care of my cat-nephew.”

Nodding, Amber cleared her voice. “Sure. I’ll ask him.”

Something wasn’t right. “Don’t you want to go? We need to get more material for your paintings, and I’m itching to head to the Coast range and north. Maybe we’ll take in the sights at the San Juan’s?”

More shifting.

“Maybe now’s not the best time.”

“It’s the only time I’ve got.” Shannon put down the knife she was plastering mayo on bread with. She stacked the bread with avocados, tomatoes, sprouts, and cheese. Then she added a layer of salt and vinegar chips before topping it with an equally slathered top slice. “What, do you have a better offer?”

Now was the perfect time to go. Daniel could easily disappear while she was gone, and she wouldn’t have to think about him anymore. She sat down at the table with her sandwich, picking it up for a big bite.

“Sort of.”

Amber’s hesitant statement brought Shannon up short. The avocado and cheese fell out, splatting onto the plate.

“What do you mean?”

“Ethan wants us to fly to Boston and spend time with his family. I was actually hoping we’d talk about this over dinner.”

“Right.” She stared down at her sandwich. Appetite gone, she put it in a container and stowed it in the fridge. The refrigerator door slipped from her mayonnaise-covered hand and slammed closed.

Amber jumped at the sound.

“Sorry.” Shannon felt her face heat.

Amber gave her a troubled smile. “Ethan and I have gotten pretty serious over the past couple months.”

“Yeah.” She leaned against the counter, her insides wrapped in twists of red-hot steel, like a fiery French braid.

“And he’s really wanting me to meet his family.”

“They were here not that long ago.”

Amber cleared her voice. “Yeah, but that’s when he was finishing chemo. Now he’s in remission, and stuff is better between them. And now, especially…”

“Especially?”

“Ethan’s asked me to marry him.” Amber’s voice was ethereal with happiness and a tinge of apology.

The floor shifted out from under Shannon, and her lungs closed off. Blood pounded in her ears.

“We wanted to share the news with you both at the same time.” Amber smiled up at her with tear-filled eyes. “We’re so happy.” She reached out her hand toward Shannon.

Swallowing hard, Shannon moved and took Amber’s hand. She knew all the right things to say, but suddenly she couldn’t bring herself to say any of them. Looking down into the radiant face of her soul’s sister, her stomach clenched knowing she should be happy for her.

“I’m so glad for you, sweetie.” Shannon leaned down and pulled her into a huge hug. One day, she would be.

“Really?”

“Of course.”

“I do need more sites for inspiration. But I thought Ethan could help me find some places in Boston.”

And there it was.

Amber didn’t need her anymore. Even before Amber lost her sight, they’d go on spontaneous treks for artistic inspiration. But no more. Tears stung at the corners of her eyes, and even though Amber couldn’t have seen them, Shannon blinked them back, trying to remain in control.

“Great idea.” She forced her closing throat to stay open, her tone to stay sunny. “I’ll take care of Mocha.”

“Oh, wonderful.” The relief on Amber’s face heaped stones on Shannon’s head.

“When do you leave?”

“Next week.”

Shannon audibly sighed. Everything in her life was turning upside down. And she was just supposed to let it.

“I feel like I’ve messed everything up.”

“No. You didn’t.”

“You could take Justin with you.” Amber brightened at her own suggestion.

Shannon had to come clean. Each lie tore a new sore spot in her spirit. “Listen, Amb…Justin and I aren’t exactly on the same page as you and Ethan. Actually, that’s wrong. He’s entirely on the same page, but we’re not reading the same book.”

“You lost me.” Amber gave her a quizzical look.

“Justin wants us to get married. He didn’t propose, but it’s something he’s been thinking about. And he wants me to think about it.” She watched her friend’s eyes light up and knew she’d have to pop the bubble fast before plans for a double wedding came racing out of Amber’s mouth. “But I told him I don’t want that. I’ve never wanted that.” I can’t want it. That was the reason she’d never allowed herself to date a guy more than twice. It was the reason she promised herself she’d never get serious about anyone. She’d broken her rules, and the damage spread.

“But surely Justin is different. He loves God. He’s proven himself. He gets you.”

Shannon couldn’t help shaking her head. “No. No. It wouldn’t work. I can’t go there. He knows it. I warned him. He thought he’d change me. Or God would change me. But I’m not going to change.”

The variety of emotions playing over Amber’s face dizzied Shannon. “Don’t feel bad, sweetie. I’m okay. I’m better this way. So is he. Nobody needs this to come home to every night.” She motioned to herself before remembering Amber couldn’t see her. She sighed.

“But…” Amber started, clearly befuddled at Shannon’s misgivings.

“Trust me.” She was better. Really. Depending on Justin had made her lose her edge. She’d let down her guard. No. Not when Amber would be with Ethan. Not when there wasn’t a choice. She was back to just relying on herself and God—that was the best way to keep from being hurt.

Putting it into practice though? It was a trick she had yet to master.

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